||What's the worst thing you could ever do? The worst thing you could even conceive of? The list of most ghastly crimes ever committed must see the murder of a little old lady somewhere near the top, yet in 1955 it was regarded as a fit subject for comedy when Ealing released The Ladykillers to an unsuspecting world. How did they get away with this? It was down to the title being a misnomer, and the lady it referred to being far more resilient than anyone in the story who was planning her demise. Think on it: she has reached her mid-seventies, and she is not about to fall victim to a motley band of unlovely criminals, is she?
Thus the morality of the movies was sustained, as everyone got their just desserts in director Alexander Mackendrick's classic comedy, a comedy that in some stretches wasn't funny at all - it was utterly macabre. It took place in the kind of Britain which would be the subject of the 1971 true crime movie 10 Rillington Place, except in that there was one murderer, and he got away with his atrocities for long enough to even see an innocent man hang in his place: in The Ladykillers, that close to dilapidated set of houses where our heroine lives could potentially have Richard Attenborough as John Christie living a few doors down from her.
Again, The Ladykillers is a comedy, and at times it is very funny indeed, for if you were one of those film buffs who relished the work of a good character actor, watching this would put you in heaven, no matter that it seemed to depict a kind of hell. Or at least a purgatory, where the souls of the elderly dears were landed so they could be judged on their merits for admittance into the lofty heights of the choir invisible - did I mention there were parrots here, very much alive, but providing a link to the surreal, at times subversive comedy of Monty Python's Flying Circus? Certainly the robbers here find themselves in a predicament that grows ever more bizarre.
It was a simple enough plan, but there was naturally, a flaw. They needed a stooge. They needed someone who could transport the loot back to the little old lady's house, where they had been drawing up their scheme under the pretence of posing as a string quintet. They chose her because she was the epitome of innocence, and as played by Katie Johnson, one of those unassuming small parts actresses who would show up as the occasional landlady or somesuch, we saw that it was never too late for a performer to become a star. She only made one more film, How to Murder a Rich Uncle, but she had effectively immortalised herself here as Mrs Wilberforce.
1955 was evidently a year for cult movies featuring little old ladies as crusaders for justice, defeating evil men, for across the Atlantic Ocean, Lillian Gish was squaring off against Robert Mitchum in Night of the Hunter: that film, the only one directed by star Charles Laughton, was a flop while The Ladykillers was a hit, but they have both gone on to attain similar stature in the minds of movie aficionados, two downright odd, almost unclassifiable cult classics. And they both shared a Gothic sensibility, not to mention an appearance; Otto Heller was the cinematographer here, and his rich yet sickly colours contributed to that surreal atmosphere of "they're not going to do that, are they?"
Johnson may have been a relative unknown in light of her career of minor roles, but she was battling some real heavyweights. Ealing had wanted Alastair Sim, but he was unavailable, so they secured the next best thing: Alec Guinness performing a grotesque parody of Alastair Sim, similar enough to get the joke, yet twisted enough to invoke the genre the film was dancing around genteelly from minute one: horror. Guinness was The Professor, a criminal mastermind (in his own mind) who happens to be out of his mind - we only occasionally see his mask slip and the baleful madness break through, but with a few tweaks he could have established a career at Hammer soon after.
He did not, of course, he was far too respectable for that, but rarely was a star whose fans mostly consisted of polite society playing it so grotesque. The chemistry with his fellow bad guys was exquisite: sinister foreigner Herbert Lom, impeccable in black, jittery teddy boy Peter Sellers, the one who recognises Mrs Wilberforce's power, boxer with a heart of gold Danny Green, whose compassion is his undoing, and Cecil Parker as The Major, seedy ex-military man who coasts on superficial charm. Throw in Jack Warner as a Superintendent and Frankie Howerd and Kenneth Connor brawling in the street after the lady's force of morals gets to them, and you had one of the greatest casts ever assembled for a British movie. Screenwriter William Rose said The Ladykillers came to him in a dream, and it's strange and funny enough to have you believe him. The film allows us to indulge our outrage at its premise while satisfying our need for justice, a very British impulse for a very British comedy.
[Studiocanal's 4K UHD restoration of this film is wondrous to behold, they've done a remarkable job in bringing it back to life. These are the features on the discs:
NEW Investigating the Ladykillers featurette
NEW Colour in The Ladykillers: an interview with Professor Keith Johnston
Lobby Cards gallery
Behind the scenes stills gallery
Peter Sellers spoof trailer from the set of The Ladykillers
Audio commentary with author and film scholar Philip Kemp
King's Cross Locations featurette with Alan Dein
Audio Interview with Assistant Director Tom Pevsner
Audio Interview with Unit Production Manager David Peers
Includes the feature in both 1.37 and 1.66 aspect ratios - first time both have been available together.]